Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Mott

How could I have forgotten? Summer weekends are kind of amazing in New York City. I say that with a smile as I look outside and know that the humidity is finally here, temperatures are on the rise, and the inevitable afternoon thunderstorm will probably end up just adding to the sticky air. Minus the unpredictable weather, which is never really more than just a useful piece of conversation in awkward encounters, a summer weekend in New York can be one of the most enjoyable times to be in the city - especially for the food lover. A recent, actually pleasant trip to an uncrowded Fairway on the upper west side reminded me of the advantages of staycations and simply sticking around. But, it was a meal at The Mott last weekend, that really made me smile and think: it's good to be back.

Not only are the popular, established restaurants less crowded, but there is actually opportunity to get a reservation at a new, hot restaurant without settling for the always flattering 5 or 10 pm slots. And, after visiting the newly opened The Mott on Saturday night, these restaurant vets from Bouley, Picholine, and Town already have every reason to claim all tables as booked weeks in advance. From start to finish, it was a wonderful experience. Located in a debated territory - it could be Soho, Chinatown, or even the lower east side (I will leave it to you to decide) - this is an excellent addition to an area lacking many dining establishments. You may recall visiting its predecessor - Double Happiness - but never for more than a drink or two, and probably not a return visit. Well, The Mott is another example of a successful reincarnation of space. Take a seat here, your happiness will be doubled, and it won't be long before you head back for more.

The Mott is the kind of place that groups in New York are constantly seeking out - a place serving delicious food, where you can actually talk and hear beyond the person next to you all the while sitting in an attractive setting and still being able to afford a few drinks out after. At a table for seven, we started the meal by sharing several appetizers - all of which are worth ordering again. The crispy pork belly with stone fruits and spring lettuce as well as the rabbit terrine with spring fruits and watercress were very similar in presentation, but both had very different, distinct flavors. Knowing that an appetizer portion would definitely not be enough, we ended up ordering the ricotta gnocchi with artichokes and pine nuts as a main course portion to be served with the other starters. This was an excellent decision especially since, unlike most gnocchi, these dumplings were actually very light - almost pillowy - and we easily managed to clear the entire plate.

If you are in the mood for a meat, the duck breast is an excellent option. However, I found two seafood dishes to be the winners of the night. The sea scallops with yellow wax beans, cherry tomato and basil were perfectly prepared. The use of basil with the scallops created an extremely light dish with very fresh flavors. And the pan seared cod with cockles, artichokes, and piquillo peppers was actually my favorite dish of the evening. The fish was lightly seared and served over a broth that I just as quickly enjoyed with the sesame bread provided. Every dish prepared felt very summery and light - a true testament to a seasonal menu. We all had room for a bite or two (and what ended up being much more) to share a few desserts. The lavender creme brulee and the chocolate cake with berries and fresh whipped cream were a great combination to satisfy all cravings. However, even if you are not normally the chocolate lover, this cake is a must with its oozing chocolate center.

So the next time you start to get envious when hearing about your friend's or coworker's upcoming exotic get away, think twice. Now's the chance to take advantage of weekends in NYC - and especially those restaurants you have always been so curious about. Even on the hottest of days, there are ways to stay cool. I've never known a glass of white wine or cocktail on the rocks to keep anyone's temperature up for long. Before you know it, fall will be upon us. And, that glass of wine and fresh seafood will no longer be quite as easy to come by at The Mott or any others of your favorites.

The Mott
173 Mott St (@ Broome)
New York, NY 10013
(212) 966-9293
ING (Out of 5):

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Havens of Happiness: Part 3 - Paris

In no way am I going to pretend like I'm the only one whose happy place is Paris. No matter how many times I visit (or even live in) that city, I just can't get over it! Whether it's the food, the shopping, the scenery, the history, I really cannot get enough and I know I am not the first to feel this way. Basically to quote my mother, "I could eat or wear almost everything I see in this city." Does it get any better than that? Paris is truly the ultimate happy place. Each time I arrive in the city and catch my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur or even the Louvre (yes, the cliche monuments I cannot deny), I still get chills. On my latest trip, it was more than a treat experiencing that feeling through the eyes of my new brother-in-law who stepped on Parisian soil for the very first time. I know he is a keeper since there was no hiding his new found love for my very favorite city. Either that or he is an amazing actor. And, either way, he survived the trip with 3 southern ladies professing their love for the city over and over again. Yup, he's a keeper.

Paris is where I truly discovered fine dining and gourmet food. In New York, you'll find a Duane Reede, Chase Bank, or Starbucks on nearly every block. In Paris, there is a boulangerie, patisserie, or cafe on every street. From the minute I set foot there, I knew I had signed up for the right language. The best part is that each and every establishment is always packed full of patrons enjoying life - drinking wine or coffee and smiling - secretly knowing they have landed a spot in the food capital of the world. It's actually overwhelming for me to think about where to begin telling you about the joys of food in Paris. But, in all honesty, my last trip to Paris was overwhelming in itself as I had to pack in all my favorites within just two days. Don't worry, I managed to wear myself down running all over the city, but was always able to charge back up with a replenishing - either through a meal or my afternoon pick-me-ups.

I'll start with the pick-me-ups, aka desserts on the fly. Now, based on the smell alone, it is tempting to stop in each and every patisserie or chocolatier that you pass by. However, I urge you to be selective - you actually can be in a city with endless options! If you find yourself exhausted from shopping at the boutiques in St. Germain or on the chic Faubourg St. Honore, you are in luck. Pierre Herme has locations now on both banks. Stop in here for the ultimate macaroon. This traditional French pastry often surprises most Americans who think macaroons are almond cookies available in the US. Believe me, you will know a French macaroon when you see one and these brightly colored treats are nearly impossible to come by on this side of the Atlantic. I urge you to try as many flavors as possible since they are constantly changing at Pierre Herme. However, the passion fruit with chocolate filling is a staple, and my favorite. Since I was there for two whole days, I was able to make two different trips. And, on the second visit, in addition to the macaroons, we tried their new sorbet and ice cream combination. These are excellent "to-go" treats as they are already packed in containers and are offered in very unique flavors - ours was cream cheese ice cream with passion fruit sorbet packed with caramelized nuts. But, the best ice cream and sorbet in the city, is without question Berthillon. While many of the cafes offer an assortment of their flavors, it is on the Ile-St-Louis where you will find the best price and best choices. My absolute favorite is the cinnamon ice cream (you can actually taste the cinnamon crystals) and I have yet to discover that flavor in any cafe. You will notice the small portions are no reflection of the intense flavors. I honestly believe Berthillon can beat out any American ice cream or gelato any day.

You probably don't need to be told that croque-monsieurs, quiches, and Parisian salads (ham, egg, tomatoes, emmental, etc.) are far better in Paris than anything you will find in the States. And, it never ceases to amaze me how a croissant or baguette from almost any boulangerie in Paris will always top our creations. So, I will shed some light on a couple of restaurants worth checking out. I love the brasseries. And, with only two nights in Paris, there was no question in my mind as to whether or not I would stop by my very favorite one - Chez Fernand. Located on Rue Guisarde in the 6th arrondissement, this is the epitome of French brasserie dining. Their smaller counterpart, Pet't Fernand, only a few streets away on Rue Lobineau, offers the same, affordable menu in a smaller, quainter setting. I prefer the original for larger groups and the small for a date - but, in culinary speaking, you cannot go wrong with either. At both restaurants, you will find the traditional French dishes you always read about, prepared to perfection. The haricots verts are true to their name - finer and more flavorful than the American version. It would be a shame to leave there without trying the duck breast or beef bourguignon. Order up the "pots" of wine for the house selection that is extremely affordable and far superior to most options in the States.

With just one night and meal remaining in the city of lights, I decided to take a risk and try out an up and coming, new restaurant in Montmartre - a great excuse to head up to one of my favorite parts of the city. Chamarre Montmartre is neither brasserie nor cafe, but rather inventive and modern - both in setting and in food. We indulged in a 3 course prix fixe, but somehow managed to eat close to 6 courses as the amuse-bouches served as palate cleansers before and after every course. We ordered from both ends of the spectrum for both the starters and the main courses. We began with a duo of foie gras and a trio of raw seafood, followed by roasted pigeon and baked sole. The mains were accompanied by seasonal, baby vegetables which tasted amazing, but almost looked fake to me! The excellent preparation and creativity of each and every dish demonstrated that this chef certainly knows what he is doing. Our desserts followed the same pattern as both were a combination of fresh fruits, pastry, and sorbet - light and refreshing, yet full of flavor. I have a feeling a star or two could be coming to Antoine Heerah any day now.

Well, that about sums up my happy places (for now). It's time to bring myself back to the world of NYC or at least start writing about it again. While New York City isn't necessarily what I would call a happy place since I have been living here for 6 years (and let's face it, the wear and tear of it creates a love/hate relationship for most), I have countless amazing memories and feelings when I am there. And, it's always a great feeling to return to my apartment after both short and long trips away. After hiking the 5 flights of stairs and struggling with my suitcase, I actually just get that happy feeling - that "it's nice to be home feeling." I'll always and already miss ACK, SD, and Paris, but I'm happy to say it - it's good to be back.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Havens of Happiness: Part 2 - San Diego

San Diego. The newest addition to my happy places. I have been traveling to southern California my entire life, but had never found a chance to venture too far south of LA-LA Land. At least once a year, I’ve been able to visit my western relatives - loving the change of scenery and change of pace. Never shy to remind me of the guaranteed blue skies every day and both mountains and beach in such close proximity, my family members are constantly asking me why I would ever live anywhere else. They do have a great point (especially post June 2009 on the rainy east coast). But, after seeing San Diego, it’s time I ask them why they haven’t moved even further south.

Now I could probably go on and on about what an amazing place San Diego is, but I know it’s the food that you are really interested in. And, yes, the food is, without question, one of the area’s highlights. How could my newest happy place not have fed me well? What I loved most about the dining in San Diego was the variety of authentic cuisine - and authentic cuisine done just right. Whether I was eating at Japanese, Vietnamese, or Mexican restaurants, it felt like the real deal, with no frills or fusion - a rarity for city dining. Another perk is being able to visit so many of the surrounding neighborhoods by car and not being stuck in hours of freeway traffic. In just a few trips to San Diego, I already feel like I’ve covered the grounds - from the beaches to the hills - and dined my way through them too.

First stop, Carlsbad - The Village Kitchen & Pie Shoppe, just off the highway in an unassuming location. To live in and/or visit the San Diego area without making a trip up here would be a sin - especially if you love brunch as much as I do. As I am never shy to mention, brunch is not only one of my favorite meals, but also one of my favorite things to do in NYC. And it’s always such a comfort to find that this exists outside of New York. In fact, I have been trying to think of a place comparable to the Pie Shoppe in NYC and am actually at a loss. This place is a true classic. A cross between a diner and a good old, southern-style family restaurant, the food is the best of both. From the simplest egg dishes to scrambles and omelets, you cannot go wrong - especially if you order up the biscuits and sausage patties. I’m now realizing southern cuisine should definitely include the west coast too - since the patties at the Pie Shoppe are as good as it gets back home. From the looks of the french toast, the cinnamon rolls, and the pies, I actually wish I could take this place home with me.

Next stop, Oceanside - Mr. Pho, a total dive. Don’t let its strip-mall location keep you away! I knew this place was a winner the minute I stepped inside and realized I was in the minority. I was actually surprised that there was an English menu. While I immediately recognized my Vietnamese favorites, the menu was endless - offering so many more variations of pho, vermicelli, and other specialties than I had ever imagined. We started with the spring rolls. I loved wrapping them in fresh mint leaves and dipping them in the light, sweet sauce on the table. The chicken pho was one of the most comforting soups I have ever tasted. I have never seen a bigger, cheaper bowl of soup that, at the same time, was absolutely fresh and delicious. The vermicelli with roasted pork is another great option - and as authentic as they come. All dishes are accompanied with the traditional Vietnamese sides - fresh vegetables, mint, limes, and sauces that you are free to add according to your liking.

Final stop, Old Town, San Diego - the Coyote Cafe. Once you hit up this neighborhood, you may actually think you have driven far enough south and ended up in Mexico. Could this be San Diego’s Little Mexico? No matter the direction you turn, there will be a Mexican restaurant or bar surrounding you. While at first glance it may be a challenge to pick out the hits from the misses in this festive area, I’ll help you out by directing you towards Cafe Coyote. You can and should sit outside either downstairs or on the upstairs deck and enjoy all that San Diego has to offer - warm evenings and authentic food, and just a step away from the border. The homemade chips and salsa waiting for us as we sat down reinforced our close proximity. Everything from the tostadas to the shrimp tacos to chicken enchiladas screamed both fresh and Mexico. It was the perfect ending to a day spent diving into the Pacific, driving from one beautiful beach to the next.

In all honesty, I cannot believe it has taken me more than 28 years to discover this place. But, I guess better late than never! And, it’s nice to know that there is always room for new happy places in our lives. I’ll keep enjoying the old, but am thrilled to welcome the new. And, the best part of happy places is that there is always a return-date. See you soon, San Diego!

Village Kitchen & Pie Shoppe
950 Tamarack Ave
Carlsbad, CA 92008
(760) 729-6414

Mr. Pho
4750 Oceanside Blvd # 821
Oceanside, CA 920
(760) 940-1306

Cafe Coyote
2461 San Diego Avenue
San Diego, CA 92110
(619) 291-4695

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Havens of Happiness: Part 1 - Nantucket

If there is one thing that I am certain of, it's the importance of happy places. Every one should have at least one. That place where no matter what is going on in your life, you feel at ease - basically like a child again. While the best part of a happy place is actually being there, the memories of the place can often be just as powerful. I'm coming off a couple months of hitting up almost all of my favorite spots and, I'll be honest, it feels pretty great. True, these places would not exist in such an elevated place in my mind without the amazing settings and friends and family in tow. However, when it comes down to it, most of my days away are defined by my meals - making sure I get to pack in all of my favorites in such a short period of time. Could it be that my happy places are really my happy eating places? To any one that knows me well, that actually sounds just about right.

My original happy place is Nantucket. I have been going there with my family every year of my life during the month of June - missing only one year and I can guarantee that will never happen again. We have our traditions - and with no surprise, they basically all revolve around food. Whenever people ask me what my favorite food is (one of the hardest questions for a lover of all foods!), I can actually easily answer. It's lobster - hands down. And this love affair started at the age of five when I had my first lobster out on Nantucket. A trip to the island is not complete without lobster night at home. We used to pick up our live lobsters at the local seafood store, and then, cook and crack them at home. I loved playing with the lobsters, making them race each other across the kitchen floor - truly getting to know them before they took their last breathe. As excited as I was about getting to eat my favorite food, it was always pretty traumatic when it was time to get out the big pot. It took only a few years of convincing me to break part of this tradition and actually have someone else cook and crack them. Believe it or not, the lobsters taste even better when you don't have to do the dirty work. Call up the Straight Wharf Fish Store or Sayle's Seafood and they will be more than happy to prepare your very own lobster feast for the evening.

After a night or two at the house, I am always ready to head out to dinner. A night at The Company of the Cauldron is a must. This quaint restaurant is the site of my first gourmet meal. At age ten, one night at the Company was the beginning of the end for the Hungry Roach - my days at the Brotherhood suddenly became few and far between. Located in the heart of downtown, this tiny restaurant serves only one menu each night at two different seatings. The moment we arrive on island, we head to India Street to reserve a night that appeals to all. In all fairness, I have yet to have a less than perfect meal there. We could definitely blindly pick a night and be more than satisfied as each year the food just seems to get better and better. This year was no exception. We started the evening with house made lemon basil fettuccine tossed with lobster, shrimp, spring peas, and fresh morels. I can never turn down an evening with lobster on the menu - and this dish did not disappoint. It was followed by a farm arugula and melon salad served with Nantucket farm greens - an excellent, light transition between the heavier dishes. I still had plenty of room for every morsel of the pecan crusted halibut topped with key lime beurre blanc, served with herb roasted fingerling potatoes and grilled asparagus. This was every bit as delicious as it sounds. And the momentum carried straight on through dessert as we all polished off a blackberry creme brulee. I already cannot wait for next year's meal - another tradition that simply will not be broken!

We do try to mix it up and try out another restaurant or two each year. This year's lucky winner was The Galley at Cliffside Beach. And, it truly was a winner in our eyes. Despite a cloudier morning, we ended up there for the quintessential Nantucket sunset. Whether we are sitting on our widow's walk, on the cliff at Step's Beach, or right on Jetty's beach, I've got to watch the sun sink into the Nantucket Sound at least once before leaving. We were lucky enough to catch our sunset all the while enjoying a delicious meal. The restaurant is located right on the beach - and the seafood-full menu doesn't let you forget it. There were so many excellent options for both starters and main courses, it was almost hard to decide. The pernod-scented escargots with melted leeks, tomato, and garlic butter served with a homemade breadstick were excellent. I would also recommend the hamachi tartare with creamy avocado, radish, seaweed crisp, and aged soy. Seafood was definitely the way to go with the entrees, but that still did not seem to narrow down the many choices. The miso-marinated halibut with daikon, carrot and tatsoi salad topped with chiang xiuang vinaigrette as well as the pan-roasted artic char with braised greens, double-smoked bacon, and rock shrimp polenta were unforgettable. Whether or not you have room for dessert, another course is the perfect reason to prolong your rights to this high-valued real estate. We passed around and completely cleared the plates of a lemon-lime tart, an apple tart with caramel ice cream, and a warm chocolate brownie topped with vanilla ice cream and toasted hazelnuts. The Galley may have just joined the ever-growing Nantucket tradition list.

Just thinking of all of these meals, I am sitting here with a smile on my face. If that doesn't define a happy place, then I don't know what does. Thank goodness for memories and the possibility of return. That alone should get me through the next 11 months until it's time to return to our magical island once again! The countdown has begun...